AT THE MOVIES
Favorite Films of the Year
BY NOAH GITTELL
In 2019, cinema followed the trendlines of our national politics and became more polarized than ever. The nine highest-grossing movies of the year were either comic book adaptations, sequels, or sequels to comic book adaptations. It’s easy to see why Martin Scorsese felt compelled to speak out, penning an op-ed in The New York Times to complain about the “sameness” of movie franchises. At the same time, arthouse cinema for adults is thriving. Sure, much of it has moved to Netflix, and all of it seems to come out at the same time, but let’s not be greedy. This was an incredible year for movies, highlighted by these ten non-franchise films, my favorites of the year.
- “The Irishman”
The first two hours of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic are soggy and unfocused, but the last 90 minutes is among the best work he’s ever done. An unsentimental chronicling of life and loss, a searing critique of Boomer masculinity, and a fascinating dialogue with other classics of the mob movie genre.
How do you make a horror film set entirely during the day? “Midsommar,” set at a Swedish commune during the summer solstice, makes hay from its limitations and achieves a rare style of visual terror. I won’t spoil any of what befalls its doomed characters — an American female college student, her boyfriend, and his jerk friends — but what sets the film apart is the unique sense of dread, where evil without the benefit of shadows looks much like empowerment.
- “For Sama”
“For Sama” documents several years in the life of Waad al-Kateab, an Aleppo-based journalist during the Syrian Civil War. Filming the atrocities of war with her own camera, she brings us closer to war’s tragedies than any film before. But what really resonates in “For Sama” are the personal milestones in al-Kateab’s life. As we watch her fall in love, get married, and have children, the film becomes an inspirational story about how to keep hope for the future alive in the most desperate times.
I sometimes think that movies only exist to protect us from our own fear of mortality. Most movies make death seem neat and manageable. Deaths usually occur offscreen, hiding its harsh realities. That’s why a movie like the Netflix original “Paddleton” feels so refreshing. Its story of two friends, one of whom is dying of cancer and considering assisted suicide, serves as a tender bromance but also a demystification of death that subverts the typical Hollywood approach.
- “Uncut Gems”
If you ever run out of coffee, just turn on “Uncut Gems.” The film by Josh and Benny Safdie is an exhilarating rush of anxiety and euphoria. As a New York jeweler with a crippling gambling addiction, Adam Sandler inverts his man-child persona and embodies a character who becomes more sympathetic the deeper he sinks into his own dysfunction. It’s a remarkable performance in an unshakeable film.
- “Pain and Glory”
Pedro Almodovar’s film about an aging director looking back on his own life, examining his own artistic obsessions and trying to heal his broken relationships, stands beautifully on its own as an engaging character study. But casting Antonio Banderas, with whom Almodovar had a famous falling out when the actor left Spain for Hollywood, as his proxy makes it even more delicious.
This romantic drama from German director Christian Petzold is based on a 1944 novel, but it updates its story of love and mistaken identity in occupied Paris to the present day without explanation. It’s a narrative masterstroke, but what grounds the film is the anguished romance between a young man impersonating a famous writer who has gone missing, and the writer’s wife who waits faithfully for his return.
A tale of raw, painful emotions told with a bravura expressionism. “Waves” is the story of a black, middle-class family in suburban Miami, the tragedy that befalls them, and the healing that follows. It’s a top-to-bottom masterpiece, with breakout performances and a bold visual style that accentuates its story of boiling anger and hard-earned forgiveness.
- “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
Like a shot of love injected deep into your veins, the film by Celine Sciamma (“Girlhood”) is the story of a forbidden romance in 18th century France between a painter and her subject, a sullen young aristocrat. Tenderly acted and gorgeously composed, “Portrait” is beautiful on the inside and out.
- “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”
A celebration, a provocation, a comic elegy, a hangout movie, and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is Quentin Tarantino’s best and most vulnerable movie. It combines all of his obsessions – revisionist history, brutal violence, and, yes, feet – before finally locating the tender heart that has spilled so much blood for him. It’s a jubilee in honor of cinema, of humanity, of friendship, and of life itself, which proves to be much more precious to Tarantino than we ever knew.